Yemenis voted today in a presidential election that formally ends the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who becomes the fourth Arab leader to succumb to a popular uprising -- albeit on some of his own terms.
As part of the Gulf-brokered accord that concludes Saleh’s reign, the vice president for the past 18 years, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, is running uncontested. Hadi was appointed leader after Saleh signed a power transition accord in November in return for immunity for himself and his inner circle.
“The importance of the election is that it’s a symbolic turning point,” April Longley Alley, senior analyst for the Arabian peninsula at the International Crisis Group, said in a telephone interview from Sana’a, the capital. “It’s a way to allow for a symbolic break from a past era so that there could be an opportunity to move forward.”
Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, with about 12 million eligible voters. In the southern city of Aden, a child and a soldier were killed as militants from a southern secessionist movement, which has rejected the vote, fired in the air to prevent voters from heading to polling stations, said Abdul-Raqeeb Mohammed, a 28-year-old university student, in a phone interview. One soldier was killed and four officers injured in an attack in Hadramout, state-run Saba News Agency said.
Houthi rebels in the north have also called for a boycott. Elections officials said some disruptions were reported, including removal of ballot boxes and attacks on soldiers.
“We had expected more,” Khamees al-Deeni, deputy head of the elections committee, said in a news conference. Turnout exceeded expectations in some cities, including Sana’a and Taiz in the south, and ballot papers were flown to some centers that had run out, he said. Some incidents weren’t triggered by opposition to elections, he said: a ballot box was seized by residents of Omran, north of Sana’a, because they said the government owes their tribal leader money.
In the capital, men in white robes, with traditional daggers on their waist, and women covered in black with only hands and eyes exposed crowded into a polling center.
“I hope Hadi will be up to the challenge we’re entrusting him with,” said dentist Amal al-Ahjari, 27, showing her ink-stained thumb.
‘Full of Obstacles’
Many said they were voting to formalize the end of Saleh’s rule. “I voted for Hadi to remove Saleh and his family from power for good,” Nashwan al-Faqih, 30. “We don’t want to see this man again.”
The disruptions highlighted the accord’s frailty and the outstanding issues that could doom it. Saleh’s influence will also remain after his departure -- his son and relatives command the country’s strongest military units.
Jamal Benomar, the United Nations’ envoy to Yemen, said the transition is moving forward and most of the accord’s provisions have been implemented on time.
“There’s a long road ahead that could be full of obstacles,” Benomar told reporters yesterday.
In a speech yesterday, Saleh, who is in the U.S. for medical treatment, urged Yemenis to leave the past behind and rebuild what the country’s political and economic crisis has destroyed.
Hadi will lead Yemen during a two-year transition that will end with a new parliament and constitution. Saleh will return after the vote to lead his party, the General People’s Congress, as it prepares to contest the next presidential election, party spokesman Tareq al-Shami said in an interview.
“We are going to be the strongest party in Yemen and we will win with a big majority,” al-Shami said.
Spare More Deaths
Saleh agreed to relinquish power in the Arab world’s poorest country after months of protests inspired by the revolts that forced out leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled a month later and is currently on trial, while Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was killed in October.
“Of all the Arab leaders who faced the protest of the Arab Spring, Saleh is the only one who left through a negotiated settlement to a certain degree on his own terms,” Alley said. “The settlement spared the country more bloodshed and that is a very positive aspect of the agreement.”
The post-election transition must include a reorganization of security forces, stable economic growth and strong government institutions, which are “all critical elements in achieving success against al-Qaeda and extremism in general,” U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein said in a Feb. 20 interview in Sana’a.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, shares a 1,800-kilometer (1,100-mile) border with Yemen and has been targeted in the past by Yemen-based militants from al-Qaeda. Yemen is the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors.